Events

Experimental Music Festival Obey Convention Draws Unconventional Voices

Photos: Steve Louie / Obey Convention

We present interviews with three of the festival's most uncompromising voices. Debby Friday explores feminine aggression through her self-styled blistering Bitchpunk. Korea Town Acid is a classically-trained pianist who creates intricate, eclectic beats. Layia combines field recordings, instrumentation, and live vocals in dense ambient collages.

Each year, the Obey Convention, a four-day experimental festival based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, supports some of the best experimental voices in Canada and across the world, presenting both eclectic and confrontational programming. It's not every week you could take in the exciting musicians interviewed here: Debby Friday, exploring feminine aggression through her self-styled blistering Bitchpunk; Korea Town Acid, a classically-trained pianist who creates intricate, eclectic beats; and Layia, combining field recordings, instrumentation, and live vocals in dense ambient collages. Read on to delve into three discussions of the artistic process, vulnerability, authenticity, and more.

Though this article focuses on these three artists, it would be somewhat tone deaf to neglect mentioning this year's controversy surrounding an event commemorating the work of photographer Julius Eastman. The interviews below were conducted before this event, and both Debby Friday and Korea Town Acid wished not to comment as they hadn't attended the lecture. Layia expressed the following sentiment: "I didn't attend the Mary Jane Leach presentation, but I think that in these situations it is most important to listen to the voices of the people who have been affected. I see a lot of white cis voices talking over those of the QTBIPOC communities. I don't think that's right." Onward to the interviews.

Photo: Steve Louie / Obey Convention

I. Getting out what's inside, no matter what way it comes out: Debby Friday

How would you explain the Bitchpunk ethos? How has your forthcoming music further explored it?

Bitchpunk was about breaking out of a lot of shells I was in. Before I made Bitchpunk, I was a DJ. I had a whole life breakdown that also coincided with me not DJing anymore, and I was just reevaluating a lot of things in my life and coming to producing for the first time.

Bitchpunk really grew out of that space of taking power over my life, my art, my output, my values, and the things I actually believe in. I really reached deep down into myself, and I asked, "what do I want to say?" Bitchpunk is very much about this unbridled feminine aggression and challenging a lot of my own anger and aggressive feelings and frustration into music and sound.

As far as my new EP, which is coming this year, I'd say there are similar themes in terms of sonic aggression, but it's a bit more mature. I experimented more with sounds, and I went in a noisier direction.

This new EP is very much about grief and relief. With the new EP, I was grieving my old life and realizing that there's no such thing as going back. You can only move forward. It's a lot about transformation and allegories about the self versus other in terms of lyrical content. And as always, songs about love, because I'm very much a romantic like that. But I don't write about love in a superficial way. I write about the transformative power of love, and not just about loving other people, but what it means to love ourselves. It's not necessarily like this warm, fuzzy emotion. Love can be very cruel. Love can be very hard.

As far as dealing with the grief of your earlier life, did that mean taking a step back from the touring and partying lifestyle?

Yeah, definitely. It was all about taking a step back from drugs and alcohol and from the way I used to live and from where I used to live. I grew up in Montreal. At that point in my life, I knew I had to leave. I moved across the country, and there was grief associated with all these things I used to identify myself with and having to say goodbye so that there could be space made for what was coming next.

What was it about Montreal that wasn't conducive to your development?

For any young Canadian who's never lived in Montreal, it's a great place to live for a couple of years and get the experience, for sure, because there's no other place like it in the world, especially in Canada. But the way I was living there just wasn't healthy. I was very much doing a lot of substance abuse, and my anxiety and depression were just really high, and I was struggling with a lot of things. Having grown up there, it's the place where I've been through so much. So many things have happened to me in that city, and I think with anyone's hometown, there just comes a point where you do have to leave your hometown and go and see and do something else.

One of your earliest creative pursuits was exploring poetry. What made you shift over to music?

I'm a very expressive person and music is a very expressive artistic discipline. I wanted a way to viscerally express what I was feeling and to connect with other people. You can do that with poetry. But I just took to music really quickly, and I felt that music took to me really quickly as well and it went really smoothly.

What's your daily artistic process like?

I work on music every day. That's number one. I don't necessarily make a track every day, but I try to do something every day. So whether it's reading about sound or practicing, producing or watching a tutorial or just doing something artistic, I do something creative every day.

That's really important to building up discipline and building skills, because nothing happens overnight, right? It's all about a process and putting in your hours. On a really good day when I'm feeling in the zone and focused and feeling like I have the time to make a track, I just open up Logic and seclude myself in my studio or my room, and I just work at it for hours until it's done.

Do you still leave the door open to DJing?

I leave it cracked open. Right now, I'm not DJing as in playing shows. I still dabble in making mixes, the part I enjoyed the most about it. It's an art form that speaks to me in certain ways. But as far as DJing parties, there's nothing really going on there right now. I think it's just more to do with maintaining sobriety, and then I'm really busy with school and focusing on making music as a performer and working on those other aspects that I don't really have the time to dedicate to be a good DJ.

How has DJing informed your producing?

First of all, it opened me up to so much experimental music. When I started as a DJ, even right from the beginning, I was very drawn to the experimental underground club scene and the music that was coming out of those spaces, which was very different. It was new. It was really exciting.

DJing taught me a lot of things about how music could sound, about how it could be made, about how it could make you feel. I definitely got a lot of inspiration from that, from just being surrounded by people who were as into music as I was. As a producer, I'll go back and listen to songs from my DJing days that made me just be like, "Oh, my God, this track is so sick," and then I'll try to capture that feeling when I produce as well.

It also just gets me thinking out of the box. Instead of just making a regular track, which is like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, whatever, it gets me challenging ideas of how a song is supposed to be structured.

What are you exploring in your graduate work? How is your paper "Shouting as Aesthetic Practice" connected to your music?

I'm really lucky, because I'm in this MFA program that's interdisciplinary in nature, so you get to explore whatever you want. My main focuses so far have been on sound, video art, and performance. They're connected to my music career because I realize the type of performer that I want to be is not just on a stage. I want to tell a story. To be a good storyteller, you need to be able to immerse people in the experience. You need to also be able to speak to very base emotions, to generate emotions in people. A lot of what I'm able to do in my MFA is explore methods of doing this.

There's a lot of issues with academia, but school is still one of the best ways to get access to resources in the arts and to be able to fail in a place that is relatively safe. So school has been really great in terms of experimenting with different mediums of storytelling and growing my skills as a visual storyteller especially, which is something I didn't have the opportunity to do before. I'm working on a directed studies where I'm actually making a noise instrument.

Academic writing on sound is something I've been wanting to do for a long time, and I was finally able to do it in this MFA. The paper I wrote was specifically couched in my lived experience as a black woman who engages with punk music and the punk scene.

I asked, "What does shouting do? What does it mean? What is brought about when women shout?" I actually just presented it in Manchester at the Sonic Waves Symposium geared towards women in sound. Being a sound theorist and thinking about sound through a philosophical lens is something that definitely comes into play when I'm making music and writing lyrics. Sound is one of the things that affects people across the world. You don't even have to understand the language, if there's even words. It's just something that elicits very visceral reactions. A new thing I'll probably work on later this year is talking about the juxtaposition between silence and noise.

I found the paper was almost a manifesto, which kind of relates back to what you were talking about earlier about your narrative. While the medium and the formats might change, creativity always remains the same.

Yeah, it's very true. It's about getting out what's inside, no matter what way it comes out.

What can you tell me about "The Color of Betrayal Is Yellow?"

"The Color of Betrayal is Yellow" is an installation project I did in my second-semester studio class, and what's on YouTube is the video portion of it. I had the video playing against one of the walls of the room where the installation was, and I was doing live vocalizations on top.

It was my first time doing an installation like that. I started with a poem I'd written a couple of months before and turned it into a multimedia thing. I wanted to explore grief, again, and I also wanted to explore the concept of self-betrayal. A lot of times, when we feel other people betray us, it's actually because a part of ourselves feels betrayed by ourselves, right? We're self-protective creatures. That's how that project kind of came about.

Really surprisingly, it got picked up by the Contemporary Image Collective, an independent art collective based in Cairo, Egypt. Someone from there sent me an email and asked me if they could translate it to Arabic and screen it at an event they were hosting just over last weekend. That was pretty amazing to me because I never expected something I'd made in school would be able to break the bubble of academia and reach people in real life. I was really happy about that. That's pretty much like what happened with Bitchpunk, I put it up on the Internet, and then all of these people were like, "Oh, I love this. I'm listening to this and sharing this." For the first time, I really saw and felt the power of the Internet.

Were you pretty connected in the SoundCloud or Bandcamp communities? Or did it just kind of happen organically?

It happened really organically, because at that time, I was actually in isolation. I hadn't been talking to anyone for months, just very insular. One day I made a post on Instagram that I had put the album out. I put it on my Bandcamp with a digital distribution, and that was it. Over the course of just a couple of weeks it started blowing up. People were just listening to it. And then over months, people started writing about it and just being really into it. People were inviting me to come and play shows. I was really surprised, because, to me, it's like, you know, I'm in Canada. I was living in my mom's basement at the time. I did my first live show tour last year, and that culminated everything for me, and made me realize that this was actually real.

What can you tell me about the multimedia project with Abstract Without Abstraction?

So that project, which is called "Terror," was, even before Bitchpunk, my first foray into me coming into my own as an artist, musician, and producer. For that project, they had asked me initially just to make a mix for it, because I was still known as a DJ at the time. But then I decided to just be really extra and make a whole bunch of other stuff. So it turned into this whole thing. I made a visual poetry piece, I made a cover, and then I made this three-song instrumental EP, which included tracks that I live-coded with TidalCycles. I was really into live coding at the time, which I still am. But at that time I was just learning about how to make music with code.

And then I made this little video I filmed in my mom's living room. I edited it on my phone because I had a really crappy computer at the time. It's so funny, when I was doing my applications for grad school, I included that project in my application. And when I went to the interview, they were just like, "Oh, this is great." I guess to me, I wasn't thinking it was anything that special. I was proud of myself for putting it out, but it's that thing of, where you don't really have a perspective until you actually put your artwork out there, and once it doesn't belong to you anymore, you see it in a more 360 type of way.

How have you found the experimental scene in Vancouver and in Canada generally?

Vancouver is really great, because it has a lot of little pockets of people who are interested in experimenting with sound, but I find it to be a little bit insular. I don't know if it's because I haven't been here that long yet, so it might be hard to find events. It's very word-of-mouth, which has its own charm, but it can feel very disjointed. Like the pockets don't really interact with each other as much.

But what I do love is the experimentation that's going on. There's a few people I've met recently who are doing a lot of work to open up that scene and bring in people from outside and bring in other artists from Vancouver together for events and get-togethers having to do with sound and music.

As far as Canada in general, I don't know about other places, but I do know a bit about Montreal and Toronto. Montreal has always been very open to more experimental music. But when I lived there, I remember a lot of venues were getting shut down and closed, so it's like these events and parties would not have a place to be hosted. A lot of the underground places were just completely getting shut down or they'd get raided by police. A lot of events coalesced into this one venue. It's great that there's a venue, but you don't want to have every single event at the same place. I think it's gotten better for people making music, but as far as events and parties and stuff, I don't know what's going on with the scene there too much now.

How was your live show at Obey different from what you've done in the past?

I rehearsed for the first time. Also I had completely new material from my second EP, which is not out yet. I also performed songs I've done in collaboration with other artists or for things outside of the EP, like a track with DJ Haram who also performed at Obey. But now I have a better idea of what I want to do as a performer, and I'm slowly getting there. I definitely brought all that energy to Obey.

What did you learn from doing the Red Bull Bass Camp?

My understanding of Bass Camp is that they get a bunch of artists from a certain place and bring them all together. You're supposed to be in this place where you come to learn both from each other, and also from the space you're in, so they have a lot of people around who are music technicians, just really knowledgeable. You have this wealth of resources at your fingertips, and you don't have to worry about anything. It was one of the best experiences I've ever had in my life, and I learned so much about a lot of hardware, which I wouldn't necessarily have access to, because up until then, I had been making music solely on my computer.

But at Bass Camp, I got the opportunity to play with a bunch of hardware and learn how to actually use it. I was in a professional studio for the first time ever. It was just like really mind-blowing to be there and learn how it all works.

Did you get a chance to talk with Korea Town Acid?

Yeah, Jess is awesome. She is a boss. I remember seeing her all four days. She went hard in the studios every single day. She's very talented.

You've talked about sustainability as far as musical communities in the past. What does that look like to you?

It looks like not treating people as disposable, which is just basic human decency, and shifting this idea that, yes, we're in business together, as well as part of a community.

It's about how I want to be treated, and how I want to treat other people. I want to create something that has a solid foundation. It might be slow, but it's steady, and it can sustain not only me, but those that I consider myself in a community with.

So I'm not interested in coming up alone and being this overnight sensation that blows up and then that's it. I don't think that's sustainable in the long term, and I want to have a very long career in this. I want to see the same faces that I came up with also being there with me along on this journey. I'm very much interested in creating something solid that will outlast me.

What would you say to those out there who also consider themselves outside the system, but feel it's difficult to express themselves?

I would say that you just need to keep doing it. Even if you're the only person who gets you, that counts. And trust me, you're not the only person who gets you. There is a tribe for you. It might be all over the world. It might be scattered. It might be smaller than you imagined or bigger than you imagined. But there's a tribe for you. I really believe that there's something for everybody out there. People connect with all sorts of things. So even if you think whatever you're making is so strange, and nobody's going to get it, people are going to get it. People are going to connect, as long as you are being authentic, and as long as you're being true to your self-expression and your creativity, and you're being accountable to yourself. People are going to connect with that no matter what.

Photo: Steve Louie / Obey Convention

II. Moving on it day by day: Korea Town Acid

What's your musical background?

I'm sort of versatile, where I DJ, and then I play experimental shows at places like Obey. I used to have a duo called Chobo six or seven years ago, where I was strictly responsible for all the synth lines, and my former music partner would play drum machines. That was my thing before I started Korea Town Acid. I'd been playing hardware live and playing experimental shows in Toronto.

What can you tell me about your release on Cosmic Resonance?

Chris and James at Cosmic Resonance have been friends of mine for a long time, and they're amazing musicians themselves. We would jam for fun, and a little while ago they were starting up this music label. So we had a friendship connection beforehand. They genuinely care, and I think that's what was amazing about it. I recorded purposely to release with their label. They used to have this space on Wyde. It's like a warehouse space. So we had like a couple different synths, like Nord, Juno, Poly, and a saxophonist came in. She had a real Space Echo. It was just raw and organic.

How was your experience at the Red Bull Bass Camp?

It was amazing. It was like a dream. So much fun. I was able to connect with different artists from coast to coast, and it was very inspiring. I got to play the most rare, expensive analog synthesizers. We spent the whole time in the National Music Centre. And I had an opportunity to DJ for the opening party. I'm hoping to release some tracks that I collaborated on with different artists from there.

Debby Friday attended as well. Did you have a chance to work with her?

Debby's super-talented. We had a chance to listen to her music. We actually filmed a video together. We played the world's most rare synthesizer, called Tonto. It's the biggest modular synth. We played it for about 35 minutes.

What were you doing differently at Bass Camp that you wouldn't do in your studio?

First of all, we didn't have any drum beats. It was all just synthesizers, all modular synths, just polyrhythms and tweaking filters. We had also never played these instruments. So it was getting us out of our comfort zones. Still, we're musicians that play experimental electronic live music, so we felt easily driven to it.

Some of those rare synthesizers, they're only available in academic settings, so access is an issue, along with the cost of course.

I believe the National Music Centre is the only place that has the Tonto. I think there's only one. Apparently Stevie Wonder recorded an album with it. So it was a very historical synthesizer, which I don't get to play on a daily basis.

I saw the list of the synths that I had access to, and I had a few in mind. I actually never knew about Tonto. But then once we got to Red Bull, it was just all about Tonto. Everybody just wanted to get their hands on it, because it's just such a massive, crazy modular synthesizer. It looks like a fucking spaceship.

Debby is very cognizant of the actual artistic process, getting over resistance for the daily artistic process and just getting into it. Do you struggle with that? What is your daily process like?

Yeah, I mean, I still have a part-time job three days a week, and I play a lot of shows almost on a weekly basis. So I feel like I'm either at work or hung over. I've been touring a lot, so I don't have as much time to work on music every day like that. I live in a very expensive city, Toronto. Sometimes I work all day, like nine hours, and I come home and I sometimes don't feel inspired to make music. So every day is a struggle with trying to find a balance.

My laptop just died, so it's been really stressful to communication, organizing, editing anything. Luckily, I play hardware, so I record straight to the audio recorder. But then you need the post-production to make it really tight for modern music. My goal is to just be able to work on my music and do shows. That's what I want my life to be, but it's not like that right now. But I'm very close, so I think it's moving on it day by day.

It's all about having a habit, but also reassuring myself as a producer that I have these abilities, because I made like trap, I made jazz, I made this beatless modular acid techno.

I'm a pianist, so I kind of proved myself to be able to be versatile in the studio, because I know how to use hardware. I know how to play keys and record in software. Having that versatility, being in the studio and playing live shows, it benefits me to really be myself, to really make something whole.

Being an electronic musician, half of it is navigating your workstation or your studio, like the setup and plugging shit in, trial and error, technical problems. That's most stressing me out in terms of making music: going to a show, setting up, fingers crossed that my MIDI sync will work, because otherwise I'm fucked. There's just a lot of pressure in the technical aspect. But it fuels your material. There are so many aspects you have to care about to be the artist you want to be, right?

But I'm able to be in control of this kind of production, and I'm able to communicate with different artists and share ideas and meet halfway. It feels good when your creative vision gets contributed.

III. Safe to be loud and noisy, and it doesn't have to be pretty: Layia

Have you been to Obey before?

For sure. I remember a million years ago seeing Grouper, one of my favorite artists in the world. It was such a comfortable, free zone, and it felt really nice to be a part of something that maybe wouldn't take place if there wasn't this platform for it.

How would you describe the experimental scene in Halifax and Canada? Have you found many communities?

Now that we live in the age of the Internet, you just reach out to someone and you can have friends. I have friends in Iceland and all over the UK, Europe, everywhere. I don't know how they found my stuff. Obey brings the scene in Halifax together, and then you're like, "Wow, look at all of these people." Then there's Bleep in the Dark and a lot of stuff with CKDU [the Kings and Dalhousie University radio station]. So, yeah, I've definitely found quite a little scene out here. It's kind of a lot of people who are very introverted, so it's a little bit standoffish, but it's supportive, and I've never had a bad experience seeing anyone or having anyone being dramatic.

What led you to music initially?

I've been in a couple other bands in the city. One of them was called Belladonna, which was a little bit more along the ambient rocker side of things. But I didn't feel passionate about it, so it was kind of hard for me to write for it, because I was the lead vocalist. And then I started a band that's called Ochre Acres, which was really fun. It was with my best friend, Robin. Then I moved to Toronto, and I was planning on doing music up there. But life got ahead of me, and I definitely got a bit more into what I'm doing now, mostly for coping reasons.

Pick that apart a bit more.

It was about creating a safe space for myself in a place where I really didn't feel safe, which is why there's a lot of field recordings and kind of like low-range, subtle ambient textures going on, because I definitely want everyone to be hearing and feeling a similar thing. I want everyone to feel safe, but I also want it to be a little bit uncomfortable, because that's the reality.

Photo: Steve Louie / Obey Convention

I love this idea of there being another dimension to it, an experiential place that you're coming from, as opposed from a purely timbral space.

Yeah, for sure. I've definitely had some struggles mental health-wise, which I don't think there's any shame in saying. And creating a little world through this kind of music has always been something that I can do.

I took like five years off of music after being in those two bands. One of them had six people in it, and you just don't feel heard. I felt like I was just put in the front to be that girl in the front of the band.

It was just not what I felt like I wanted, which is why it's so cool to play things like Bleep in the Dark, a festival that literally takes place in the dark. No one can see you. It doesn't matter who you are. There's no judgment. It's all what you hear and however that makes you feel. There were so many people there that I knew really well. And then afterwards, they were like, "Whoa, that was you?"

Your music would be ideal in a sound bath scenario, like in a deeply meditative context.

It's interesting you say that. There's flotation centers here, and I'm actually in training to be a yoga teacher, so meditation is really close to my heart. It's gotten me through a lot of things. I was in a really bad car accident, and I wasn't allowed to do anything physical for pretty much a year. And so I just meditated to get that energy out, or else I would have gone nuts. I'm such an anxious person, my mind just had so much energy. But I find that even just focusing it in one place was so helpful. And that's actually why I started making music, because I would go to floatation tanks and play soundscape stuff I'd just put together, just 40 minutes of calming noises.

At the same time, it seems like you're flipping ambient music a little by inserting these unsettling elements. To ride this positive/negative space is more aurally interesting.

Definitely. I watched my friend play Obey a couple years ago at Fort Massey, where I'll be playing. It was my first live show of this kind of alternative ambient noise stuff, and I remember I thought the windows were going to break because it was just the loudest thing I've ever heard in my life, even having grown up in the hardcore scene. Everyone in the whole building could hear him. And he's a shy person, so it was so powerful to see him up there invading that entire space with something he made.

This kind of solitary music, because it comes from such a personal place, doesn't seem like it could even be performed with anyone else. It really does seem to be a direct reaction to your experiences in other bands.

I like that, because it's like a bubble. That's how I like to feel when I'm up there too, just in a soft space that's safe to be loud and noisy, and it doesn't have to be pretty.

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